Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers elder statesman Roman Harper ‘leader we’ve hoped for’

Roman Harper looks every inch the elder statesman of the Carolina Panthers’ defense. With a full head of hair threaded with gray – he found his first gray hair in seventh grade – Harper looks old enough to be commenting on NFL games rather than playing in them.

But Harper actually is only 32 – not even close to being the oldest Panthers’ defensive starter. And he plans to squeeze at least one more good year out of his body for the Carolina defense after starting all 18 games (including the playoffs) a season ago.

“I like starting, and I’m trying to make sure I hold that down,” Harper said after an offseason practice this week. “I want to show these coaches that I can still do it at a high level.”

Can Harper start again for Carolina?

“Very much so,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s done a great job, and he’s been the leader we’ve hoped for.”

Rivera said Harper’s best quality as a player now is “in the box,” where he’s very good against the run. “That’s probably his strength now,” Rivera said. Harper was third on the team in tackles in 2014, trailing linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Where Harper sometimes struggles is on passing downs, especially against fast receivers. Panthers fans cringe when recalling Jordy Nelson scoring on Green Bay’s first possession in the 2014 game with Carolina. Harper, who had a chance to make the tackle, never touched Nelson.

There were several plays like that last season. But Harper also led Carolina with a career-high four interceptions, including one he took back for a 31-yard touchdown early in the Atlanta game in December. Among the underwhelming group of veteran free agents that general manager Dave Gettleman gambled on in the 2014 offseason – Thomas DeCoud, Antoine Cason, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood among them – Harper and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery clearly were the class of the lot.

“And now I’m as strong as I’ve ever been,” Harper said. “I’m 32 years old and I’m healthier than I was at any point last year. These are all good signs. I’m just trying to continue to take care of my body and play this game as long as I can.”

Harper’s offseason has been busy. He got married in April at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville to Heather Haukaas. After a formal wedding, the two left the festivities dressed in matching No. 41 Panthers jerseys.

In the secondary, Harper is a mentor to Tre Boston, who earned a starting job at free safety midway through his rookie season. The two plan to team up again in 2015, as long as Harper keeps showing he can hold on to his starting job. It is also possible the Panthers will use him in a somewhat different role, Rivera said, although he was vague as to what that would be.

“You never know how this game works,” Harper said. A New Orleans Saint for eight years, he pointed to New Orleans’ trade of tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle as a “shock.”

“You’re trying to put nothing but good stuff on tape because that’s your resume,” Harper said. “Any of us could be here today and gone tomorrow.”

For now, though, Harper is here and remains the Panthers’ strong safety. And he has his own ideas about how the team can avoid last year’s 3-8-1 start.

“On a defense, everyone has a role,” Harper said. “We have to find our identity earlier this year. Some guys need to be thumpers. Some are tone-setters. Me? I’ve just got to be me – more of a leader early on, doing whatever the team needs. Everybody is going to tell you how good you are right now just so they can tell you how bad you are later when you mess up. I know that. And I’ll be ready.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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